July 26, 2001
A review by Don Archer

Brooklyn Museum of Art
Brooklyn, NY
Digital: Printmaking Now
Through September 2

Brooklyn Museum’'s member bulletin tells us that “…today a large proportion of prints are being created entirely with computers. BMA Curator of Prints and Drawings Marilyn S. Kushner has crisscrossed America identifying the most compelling recent work in order to present Digital: Printmaking Now.”

This would seem to suggest that the show is about digital art. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Instead the show is about how the inkjet print has largely in the 1990’s and now supplanted traditional means of fine art printmaking, such as lithography, etchings, engravings, screenprints and in the era of silver halide chemistry direct photographic reproduction. It attempts to show how some mainstream artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Chuck Close and Jim Dine are using the new media along with a horde of   “new, emerging” artists.

We are told that the exhibit is the 26th in a long series of print shows at the Brooklyn Museum going back to 1947. In its introductory section the current exhibit gives a brief history of printmaking that includes references and examples of woodcut engravings by Albert Dürer, etchings (Tiepolo), lithograph (Toulouse-Lautrec) and an Andy Warhol screenprint (very ugly) of the Brooklyn Bridge. There is also a wall-full (a single exhibit) of maybe 60-100 Nam June Paik prints of flowers photographed from the TV screen. Now Paik of course is the celebrated TV artist who has made an international career of exploiting the TV image, often on dozens of flashing TV sets simultaneously. These particular prints are dreary and undistinguished. One concludes they are introduced into this part of the show because of the chic associated with Paik’s name.

The show, carefully annotated and documented, is spacious and bright. It offers some sixty or more prints, many at formidable size, by maybe three or four dozen artists. There are two or three obligatory videos and animations, accompanied by print stills, and some installation art especially produced by the artist for this exhibit. Sadly, much of the art is pedestrian, because the curator is looking at the process rather than the product. The art is often overlooked; the how of its creation (and possibly its political or social intent) is more often the theme. The most dramatic example of this is a series subjected to a bizarre experiment:

“In the fall of 1997…the artist asked her friends to bury four of her drawings…the drawing remained buried through the winter… in the spring and summer of 1998.. . [friends] returned to each site and dug up the canvasses to see how the climate has affected the drawings.”

Thus, presumably, an environmental statement is made, the art being mostly irrelevant.

Further, the pretension of some of the comments accompanying the exhibit is off-putting. Kiki Smith, a well-known artist, provides “Butterfly,” 2000, a collage and inkjet print in a 3-D overlay of a nude pasted with paper wings. It’s a small, fairly uninteresting work but we are told, “This ‘butterfly’ indicates the sometimes awkward and uncomfortable yet inevitable relationship between human beings and the rest of the world.” It is just this kind of information, I think, that we may not need to know.

Other bon mots and terrible cliches:

  • “[the artist] has embedded complex questions.”

  • “[the artist] explores the boundary between reality and fantasy.”

  • “Images of babies symbolize a wish to be reborn into a new life.”

  • “the woman in this work was a prostitute, which may add further poignancy..."

  • “addresses the relationship between fine art and consumer culture.”

  • “revisits the question of nature vs. nature.”

  • “the artist is simultaneously depicted as real and unreal.”

    But we have gone to view the art. It is mostly produced on large output inkjet printers and plotters by Iris, Roland, Epson, HP, Mutoh and others, although manufacturers’ names are not generally revealed. It is astonishing to note that, possibly in part because of the expense of these machines, the artists were hardly producers of their own prints but have largely turned over this responsibility to university and commercial output shops specializing in this media. Output was not always to paper but also to canvas, cotton and linen fabric, manila hemp cloth and aluminum leaf. Clearly artists have felt the need to experiment with output material.

    There is hardly any computer art in this show, as we understand it, or reference to the Web or to web art or artists’ websites. There are no fractals, or indeed fractal imagery of any kind, and only one 3-D rendering, by Peter Neumann, “Absolut Hangover,” 2000, a pun of an anthropomorphic vodka bottle slumped in a drunken stupor against a brick wall. But bricks are a rendering cliché, and the puns are just as good or better in real Absolut advertising.

    Rather, it would seem as if the scanner is the primary input tool of the print artist today. Source material are photographs taken by the artist or appropriated from newspapers or magazines, or drawn or sketched art conventionally produced, or found or prized objects. All of this material is grist for the artist’s mill, churned, threshed, composited into digital form on the computer, then turned over in most cases to the printmaking expert. As I say, it is not computer art as we understand it, but some of it is very fine indeed.

    Best of show is Edward Fausty’s "Rootneg # 5," 1999, dark and powerful, which may be a kind of self-portrait but looks more like a tall, narrow, barely perceptible image of a jar or bottle. Ed Fausty, it is interesting to note, is a longtime photographer.

    Another majestic work is a large print by Joseph Scheer, “Actias Luna,” 2000 , of a scanned dead moth, its green wings flared out in almost perfect symmetry.

    An unusual and imaginative gem is Lynne Allen’s “Moccasin 2 and Moccasin 4,” 2000, which is not a print at all but sandals scissored, glued and sewed from paper prints. Allen has taken scans of writings and drawings from her Sioux Indian great-grandmother’s journal, printed them out, then constructed the sandals by hand. Certainly not intended to be useful or even Indian-looking, the result is pure charm.

    Other noteworthy items include Robert Rauschenberg’s “Appointment,” 2000, a collage of photographs taken by the artist on a visit to Marrakech; Bill Jacobson’s “Untitled,” from his History series 1999, two black and white exquisitely blurred Renaissance portraits from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, photographed and scanned by the artist; a black and white image “Smoke Rings (January 28, 1999)” by Daniel Sultan; Meghan Booty’s “Psyche Smokes #4,” a large photographic collage that may be intended as a kind of dream story; Jane Hammond’s “Tabula Rosa,” 2000-2001 , a full-bodied, nude, backside portrait of a heavily tattooed woman, fabricated in Photoshop; and a Chuck Close self-portrait from a Polaroid shot (a pastiche of two large prints), which goes to prove that Close can shape his own inimitable deadpan style to the new technology.

    Beyond the commentary is the art and the new technology. Its promise is real and now.

  • Don Archer reviews Digital Art Salon